Start them young on Wagner, says arts chief
13 May 2009, London, UK
Dame Liz Forgan: making no apologies for Wagner
‘Throwing children alive into a boiling vat of great music does them no harm at all,’ said Dame Liz Forgan, Chair of Arts Council England in a robust speech delivered at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards for classical music which took place at the Dorchester Hotel in London last night.
Dame Liz was recalling her own introduction, aged six, to the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, swiftly followed by a performance of Elgar's oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Her introduction to music from her passionately motivated grandfather was, she said, the ‘equivalent of loading a baby’s bottle with Napoleon brandy’.
In a clear broadside against 'dumbing down' delivered to the great and good of the classical music industry, Dame Liz went on to say that there was no need to apologise for classical music as a 'difficult' and advocated a policy of introducing children to 'what might appear to be entirely unsuitable masterpieces at an early age’.
She added that it was this ‘chronicle of unsuitability’ in her own childhood that culminated in an abiding love of classical music: ‘If I had been forced to start with clapping games, or tooting Frère Jacques on the recorder,' Dame Liz said, 'I fear I might have turned to crime or even netball as more exciting alternatives.’
Opera scored well at last night’s event, with English National Opera winning the ‘Opera and Music Theatre’ award from Sir Charles Mackerras, who presented trophies to winners in 13 categories. British soprano Susan Bullock received the ‘Singer’ award for her performances as Strauss’s Elektra [see video clip below from Washington National Opera]. George Benjamin’s opera Into the Little Hill took the award for ‘Large-Scale Composition’ (See Opera Now’s current issue for our review). Two leading operatic community and outreach projects received acclaim at the awards: Hackney Music Development Trust won the ‘Education’ category for Confucius Says, a new opera that involved 3,000 schoolchildren; and Streetwise Opera took the ‘Audience Development’ award for its innovative project My Secret Heart, by composer Mira Calix and video artists Flat-e and staged by 101 people from the homeless community.
Meanwhile, the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prestigious medal went to the German baritone Thomas Quasthoff.
Andre Previn's new opera - a report from the Houston world premiere
4 May 2009, Houston, USA
Sir Andre Previn has composed his second opera, this time a bittersweet English romance based on Noel Coward’s screenplay for David Lean's Brief Encounter, drawn from Coward's one-act play Still Life. Our US-based opera critic Charles Ward gives his first impressions of the opera which received its world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera on 1 May.
Sir Andre Previn's Brief
Encounter proves to be an engaging, well-crafted and touching addition to the contemporary opera repertoire.
‘Well-crafted’ can be critics’ code for an honourable effort the writer doesn’t want to pan. Not so in this case.
his libretto, John Caird deftly kept the movie’s story line about the ill-fated affair of the housewife Laura and the doctor Alec while
compressing incidents in the film, folding in elements from the play and,
crucially, expanding the character of Laura’s husband Fred.
that, composer Andre Previn has added a cinematic score, reminiscent of Korngold. Quick-cut,
chromatic shifts underline the text moment to moment. At the drama's peaks, the
music swelled with seething emotion within an unfailingly tonal style.
Soprano Elizabeth Futral, who portrayed Stella in the San Francisco world premiere of Previn’s first opera Streetcar Named Desire, had a tour de force role in Laura. She was on stage for the entire opera as she related her experiences in flashback form. Futral was impressive for the intensity she brought to the role, displaying an astonishing range of emotions as Laura was convulsed by pleasure and guilt, all delivered in vivid sound. Baritone Nathan Gunn , meanwhile, was vocally radiant and equally ardent as the more shallowly drawn doctor.
Encounter was not an unalloyed triumph. Caird and Previn stumbled on
things that bedevil opera, such as long swaths of interior dialogue or
subplots that drift to an end – even though the pair devised an effective
and moving conclusion to the opera as a whole.
Accustomed to a world premiere most seasons, the opening night audience in Houston responded generously, especially for Futral, and then ratcheted up its response further when a spotlight highlighted Previn in his seat near the stage.
However, without the iconic cultural hook that Streetcar Named Desire had for an American public, Brief Encounter is likely to join many recent new American operas in a state of limbo. Uncharacteristically, HGO had lined up no co-commissioning companies before opening night (though the company said it has received several inquiries since then).
See Charles Ward's complete review of Brief Encounter in Opera Now's forthcoming July/August 2009 issue
Grange Park prepares for UK Premiere of Cavalli Opera
1 May 2009
Michael White looks forward to one of the summer's most lively operatic premieres...
Scandalous misdeeds in Ancient Rome, cross-dressing, slap-and-tickle sex.... Cavalli's Eliogabolo, written for the Venice Carnival of 1668 and due for a belated UK premiere at Grange Park opera festival in Hampshire this summer, sounds like a TV script for Frankie Howerd in the 1970s and is, as its director David Fielding admits, 'a sort of romp’.
‘But not so much in the way of Up Pompei as I Claudius' adds Christian Curnyn who'll be conducting. ‘There’s tragedy as well as comedy in this piece: after all, the central character ends up assassinated, so it's not all laughs. And in a loose sense it’s based on history, although the character of Heliogabolus has been cleaned up here and there in the process of turning him into opera.’
Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire sums up Heliogabolus’s reign as ‘inexpressible infamy, beyond that of any other place or time’. Among the many counts on Heliogabolus's charge-sheet are that he drowned his enemies in poisonous petals (a creative death, you'd have to agree), boasted that he never wore the same clothes twice or slept with the same woman, set up an all-female senate for sole purpose of molesting its members, and nonetheless pursued a robustly bi-sexual interest in transvestitism.
This may explain why the piece was apparently never performed during Cavalli's lifetime, though the reasons for its absence from the stage are obscure. What is known is that it's one of the last Cavalli' operas, composed when Cavalli was in his mid-60s with long experience as one of the world's first true professionals in opera.
The Grange has seen few performances of Baroque opera beyond Handel’s Rinaldo, and it's a genre that scarcely features on the radar of the company's director Wasfi Kani. ‘But she agreed to Eliogabolo largely because in many ways it isn't quite Baroque,’ says Curnyn. You don't get all those rigid conventions. But you do get very attractive, flowing arioso – though it doesn’t culminate in quite so many tragic laments as you get in earlier Cavalli. There's a lot more comedy...’
Michael White’s full account of Grange Park’s Eliogabolo will appear in the July/August issue of opera Now. Cavalli's opera will receive its UK premiere run at The Grange, Northington (near Winchester) from 4 June to 5 July.
For details of all this year's Grange Park Festival productions, visit www.grangeparkopera.co.uk
English Touring Opera's spring season 2013
8 April 2013, London, UK
Craig Smith as ETO's Simon Boccanegra(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Kitty Whately and Lorna Bridge in a scene from Mozart's 'Così fan tutte'(Photo: Robert Workman)
Review by George Hall
English Touring Opera’s spring tour is a huge undertaking, visiting 19 theatres around the UK, from Truro in Cornwall to Perth in Scotland, over a busy three months of travel and performance. This year’s tour offered three main-stage titles as well as the new children’s opera Laika the Spacedog, and Spin, a new piece designed for young people with severe learning difficulties.
Donizetti rare L’assedio di Calais (Siege of Calais) proved the most problematic evening of the three, though not on account of the piece, a mature work (1836) which, even if not a major hit in the composer’s lifetime, has been successfully revived in ours – notably at the Wexford Festival and twice by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama; director James Conway’s production, though, represented the first professional staging in the UK.
It was not one of his best. Part of the problem stemmed from a decision to drop the opera’s third act – in which the English King Edward III, urged on by his queen, pardons rather than executes the famous Burghers of Calais, and the opera ends on a note of forgiveness and joy. Donizetti expressed dissatisfaction with his original act, and revised it, but while there is evidence that it was entirely dropped in later Neapolitan performances, there is none to suggest that this decision had the composer’s approval. In ETO’s production, individual numbers from Act III were repositioned earlier in the score while the narrative’s overall trajectory was damagingly truncated: ending with the burghers preparing for martyrdom radically alters the work’s moral tone.
The visual inspiration was the Siege of Stalingrad of 1942-43, rather than the 14th century. Samal Blak’s designs conveyed the desperation of warfare, though the overall effect was untidy rather than coherent. What distinction the evening possessed came from Jeremy Silver’s conducting and some fine singing from Cozmin Sime’s Edoardo, Eddie Wade’s Eustachio, Paula Sides’s Eleonora and especially Helen Sherman’s Aurelio, who demonstrated a real flair for articulating Donizetti’s flamboyant writing.
More successful in its traditional way was Paul Higgs’s staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, set in period in Blak’s elegant designs and sung in Martin Fitzpatrick’s English translation. Not all of the complex ambiguity of the piece came through, though enough did to maintain interest; indeed the production came more sharply into focus as it went on.
While James Burton’s conducting needed sharper definition and deeper insight into Mozart’s score, the cast was more than presentable. Especially notable were Lorna Bridge’s vulnerable Fiordiligi, Kitty Whately’s characterful Dorabella, Anthony Gregory’s graceful Ferrando and particularly Paula Sides’s Despina. Sides gave a fully thought-through performance that emphasised the character’s cynicism to a degree that was almost disturbing. This is a role that often sounds vocally pinched, so it was good to hear its vocal lines fleshed out with meaningful tone.
ETO’s third production was its most ambitious. Simon Boccanegra is a big score, making substantial orchestral and choral demands as part of Verdi’s grand scheme. Even with less than ideally sized forces at their disposal, the company attacked the piece with real gusto under its music director, Michael Rosewell, whose assured Verdian instincts registered with appreciable dramatic momentum.
The cast, too, rose to a series of major challenges with distinction. Craig Smith’s Boccanegra combined vocal and dramatic authority in a realisation that rose to genuine nobility. Keel Watson’s Fiesco possessed magnetism and grandeur, his resolute bass employed with imagination and variety. Elizabeth Llewellyn encompassed the requirements of Amelia with consistent vocal beauty and musical discrimination; with each new role she seems an ever more likely candidate for a top-level career. Charne Rochford took on the major tenor challenge of Gabriele Adorno with genuine success, even if the role clearly taxes him. Grant Doyle made the sinister Paolo into a focus of attention in a performance that was as finely acted as it was firmly sung.
This was Conway’s second production of the season, and in it he showed what he is capable of at his best. The young, award-winning designer Samal Blak (who designed all three ETO productions) moved us forward to the corrupt and violent Italy of the 1970s, where the drama played out clearly on a stark platform. Dramatic values were high throughout, and the evening rose to remarkable heights.
ETO’s spring season continues until the end of May, visiting Buxton, Cheltenham, Warwick, Perth, Cambridge, Guildford and Truro.
Bellini and Puccini at Washington National Opera
11 March 2013, Washington, US
Angela Meade triumphs in the title role of WNO's new 'Norma'
Patricia Racette as Manon Lescaut(Photos: Scott Suchman)
Reviews by Karyl Charna Lynn
Dazzling singing but stilted, uninspiring direction defined the WNO’s new production of Norma. Bellini’s powerfully melodic masterpiece about seduction, betrayal, vengeance, love and sacrifice seethes with deep-running emotions.
Director Ann Bogart, who has a theatre background, added lots of movement and action to this basically static opera, with no discernible purpose. She emphasised the ceremonial aspects of the work with lots of symbolism and stage business that detracted from the exquisite singing. There were white robed vestal virgins walking in formation like Egyptian hieroglyphs. Meanwhile, Roman soldiers clumsily stampeded up and down the steeply raked stage.
What saved the evening was the extraordinary singing of Angela Meade as the high-priestess Norma and Dolora Zajick as her attendant, Adalgisa. Meade’s voice is exquisite, technically solid and dramatically powerful with the right touch of vibrato. Her floating pianissimo was breathtaking. Zajick, whose singing was just as impressive, also delivered on the emotional and dramatic aspects of her character.
Tenor Rafael Davila made a respectable Pollione, the object of both women’s affections. He showed a pleasing lyrical timber and the high notes were all there, if at times forced. Dmitry Belosselskiy was authoritative as Oroveso. Daniele Rustioni struck an ideal stage/pit balance, never covering his singers, while drawing lush sounds from the orchestra. His timing (or lack of it) let him down in the first act: allowing no pauses for the musical climaxes to make their impact, he stole some of the fireworks from the performance.
Manon Lescaut Puccini
The elegant singing continued in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which played in repertory with Norma, but with a traditional staging by director John Pascoe that successfully integrated the music and narrative. The entire opera was staged against the backdrop of the original novel, by Abbé Prévost, on which it is based. An enormous page with Des Grieux’s writings opened each act.
Patricia Racette in the title role sang rapturously, embodying Manon’s emotional transformation from the shy girl headed for the convent to the desperation she feels, dying in America’s desolate wasteland. Her finely nuanced vocal power was riveting. Although it took Kamen Chanev the best part of the first act to warm up, it was worth the wait. His Des Grieux was heartfelt and genuine and you could feel the character’s sense of dejection and pain in his singing. Jake Gardner was a convincingly lecherous, revengeful Geronte, especially in Act II, parading around bare-chested in a silk robe. Philippe Auguin conducted fluently.
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